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October 11, 2013
Looking around Colonial Life Arena during Thursday's media day, South Carolina freshman Alaina Coates said she already feels at home on the court where she won two state championships with Dutch Fork High School.
"Every time I'm on this court, it makes me feel good because it reminds me of what me and my high school team have done on this court," said Coates. "I want to be able to do good things on this court like I did with my high school team."
The 6-foot-4 center and Irmo, S.C., native was named a McDonald's All-American and the Gatorade South Carolina Player of the Year after averaging 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game last year as a senior at Dutch Fork. But with her phenomenal high school career behind her, perhaps the most daunting task ahead is meeting her own standard of success at the college level.
Coates isn't the only one hoping to have a big year. Head coach Dawn Staley and the rest of the team have high expectations for Coates' first collegiate season. Staley said she has been impressed with the freshman since she arrived on campus three months ago.
"She is by far probably one of the most talented post players that we've ever had at South Carolina," Staley said. "She's young though, so we want to bring her along slowly. But she picks up things extremely well, and she takes up a lot of room in the paint."
Aleighsa Welch, South Carolina's leading scorer from a season ago, agreed. Welch said Coates presence will open up the offense and help the Gamecocks match up against bigger teams.
"My first two years we weren't really able to play a big lineup," Welch said. "You look at teams in the league who have people who are 6-3, 6-4. Allowing us now to be able to have a traditional two-set post player, I think it'll expand the game for us. It'll cause them to respect the inside, which I think will open up the outside for our perimeter players."
Coates said she also expects herself to play well even in the talent-heavy SEC, but she plans to take each game one at a time. Coates said the coaching staff, especially Staley, has helped ease her of the pressures that often come with so much hype.
"She always told me that if I felt a lot of pressure to tell her, and I haven't," Coates said. "They make it easy on me so that I don't feel so much pressure. I know I have a big role coming in here. That's why they've been recruiting me since the eighth grade, but I feel like I'll be able to fill the shoes they have for me."
Coates' transition into the college game hasn't been as seamless as she had hoped, though. Coates said she thought she was in good shape during her personal workouts at the beginning of summer, but she was in for a reality check when the joined the team for the Summer II session.
"It's a whole lot faster and it's a lot more than what I've been doing," Coates said. "It was kind of like a shock, but once I got here and I was here for probably a month or so, I finally got into it."
"It's been a lot of work but I've been able to keep up well with everything," Coates said.
Conditioning hasn't been all Coates has worked on. Staley said that while the freshman has been a quick learner, she room to improve as a complete post player.
"She's been doing extremely well as far as picking up things and scoring," Staley said. "Defensively, she's got a ways to go, but that's probably the toughest thing to learn as a post player."
Coates said South Carolina's defense is new to her, but it will be more suited to her own style once she learns and adjusts to it.
"I have to pick up my speed," Coates said. "Once I do that, I think it's going to be really good, defensive-wise."
Staley also said the coaching staff wants Coates to make the most of her size. The freshman will need to use her body more at the college level than she did in high school, Staley said.
"We're just trying to get her to be proud of being how big she is and use it to her advantage," Staley said. "For the longest, she's probably been the biggest of all of her peers. Those big people sort of shy away from exposing their body in the way that could help them, but here in this next level of basketball, we're going to exploit that."
Though the coaches haven't set in stone what Coates' role will be this season, the freshman is optimistic she will be ready for the challenge of playing in what could be the toughest conferences in women's college basketball.
"I feel like I'll be able to keep up with the SEC and everything they do throw at me because I'm prepared," Coates said. "The coaching staff has me mentally and physically prepared, so I feel like it's not going to be as bad as I thought it was going to be in high school."
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